Lessons in the Dust

What I Learned on My Summer Drought

Rain is a brain eraser, and a drought freezes time. This is what I've learned from the weather of '96. This dry summer stretched on like an undeserved prison sentence. The days crawled by as we watched the sky and the Weather Channel for rain as anxiously as an inmate on death row watches the clock, awaiting that last-minute reprieve from the warden. The ferns by our spring died and the water stopped flowing. Thirsty, wild animals -- herons, turtles, raccoons, squirrels, and fox -- trampled the mud around the two remaining puddles of concentrated fish chowder in our creek, a creek we swam in last summer.

At the Wildflower Research Center where I volunteer, the spring season of scarce and stubby bluebonnets gave way to a crusty summer spent dragging watering hoses through crunchy pastures in an attempt to keep recent plantings alive. The snakes at the Center would often hazard an encounter with a human just to drink from leaks in those hoses. People's wells went dry. Giant oaks looked stressed. And I refused to believe the predictions that this drought would continue another two or five or ten years. I don't recall hearing anyone predicting it was coming; why should I listen to those who said it would linger forever?

I witnessed the flood in '91 from our house at Lake Travis, and wrote about the experience for the Chronicle. I went back and read that piece about rain, rain, rain, and fire ants, and I thought, "Suzy, you whiner." I will never complain about rain again, but I decided I should learn something from this drought and its hardships, something deeper or even more pragmatic than simply remembering not to take rain for granted. We evidently learned nothing from the flood. My former neighbors, whose submerged houses were built on land lower than the spillway on Mansfield Dam, rebuilt and reinhabited their flood-prone homes. This drought should be different; it should teach us some unforgettable lessons.

I decided to write about it. The day I started calling other people to find out what they'd learned from the driest year on record, it started to rain. Our swimming hole filled up to the brim and the rain gauge read nearly five inches after 24 hours. After only one wet day, the raindrops diluted my memory, and the drought suddenly seemed like a nightmare in the distant past -- even though it's not over.

How will we know when it is over? Is it when all the lakes, aquifers, and streams are recharged? Is it when we have ground saturation over five feet deep? Is it when cities who share a water source stop carping at each other? Or is it when we catch up on our average annual rainfall?

Determining the end is as complex and contentious an issue as the drought itself. Unlike other natural disasters whose onsets are rapid and whose destruction is irrefutable, a drought creeps up on you slowly and takes months to establish itself. Its impacts can linger for years after normal rainfall resumes. And, also unlike the terrible destruction of a tornado, a hurricane, an earthquake, or flood, a drought drives people apart rather than brings them together as they struggle to divide a dwindling resource.

Few people can even agree on the definition of a drought, geographically, hydrologically, or socially. In Bali, Indonesia, a drought is six consecutive days without rain. And while there's little argument that we're woefully behind in rainfall, here in Central Texas, the various entities that monitor our groundwater -- conservation districts, utility managers, mayors -- have yet to unanimously acknowledge a drought or even determine what degree of deficit in our aquifers or surface reservoirs will ever constitute a crisis. City residents whose taps have never run dry may have little empathy for rural residents whose wells churn up nothing but stinky mud.

Because of a drought's nebulous nature, I asked my question loosely: What did you learn, or are you learning, or do you wish people would learn, from the drought of '96?

John Dromgoole, owner of Garden-Ville Nursery and host of Gardening Naturally on KLBJ-AM:

In all of the years I've been gardening, we've never had a drought like this one. At my house, I've had an inch and a half of rain since October (excluding these recent rains). We've learned that the well-adapted native plants are the way to go. They do suffer the stress of the drought like others, but their recuperative powers are greater.

I hope that people will learn to use the components of the organic technique: soil building with humus so there's more moisture retention, mulching generously with four inches being the minimum, and long, slow, deep waterings rather than frequent shallow dosing.

I do hope we see the death of the lawn. The St. Augustine lawn is a thing of the past. We have finally seen the demise of this poorly adapted, insect- and disease-riddled lawn that has kept the nursery industry in multi-million dollar brackets. They're going to lose the sale of Dursban and Diazanon and stuff, but we'll certainly have better-adapted lawns now or a new landscape style, the American landscape.

Ryan Trimble, Mayor of Blanco who gained nationwide attention by simply acknowledging the severity of the drought and enacting water restrictions on the town of 3,800 people:

I learned how precious water is and how people take water for granted and that you can't predict the future. I also learned that when people are under a great deal of stress, their true character comes out. I made some people mad; they didn't like it that I was open about our problem, about our water crisis, but so far we've managed to pull together as a community and cut our water use in half by eliminating outdoor watering and conserving indoor use.

We drilled another well a few weeks ago and I think we're going to be okay, but what's really scary is to learn that nobody thought about the chance of this happening, and that we have no disaster-relief plan to deal with it if it gets any worse. Without water, this town can't exist.

Larry Walker, owner of Emerald Point Marina on Lake Travis:

We always knew the lake was going to fluctuate, so when we bought this property we had a contingency plan, so we can manage it. Do we like managing it? No, we don't, but it's something that comes with the territory of Lake Travis.

And it's something people around here accept. I'm from Dallas. We were in the marina business 15 years up there. I was shocked when I got down to Hudson Bend where people carry pictures in their billfolds, not of their children, but of water levels of Lake Travis. Three guys flipped out their wallets and said, "Oh, here's the water in '91. Oh, and here it is in '84 down to 626."

There's a lot of misinformation coming out of the media about the lake being dangerously low, it's really scared off a lot of people. Lake traffic is down 50-60%, according to the Travis County Sheriff's office. But we've got plenty of water out here. I'd love to take the media out in my boat with the depth gauge and show them where there's 120 feet of water.

Cindy Carroccio, co-director of the Austin Zoo:

Well, the drought made me think about putting in another well, only much deeper, putting in rain collection tanks, and shelving the water fowl pond for another year. (It's been shelved three years running. That desert exhibit looks better all the time.) I also scrapped the Salamander Interactive Pool exhibit and the Shamu Pond because of the drought. SchlitterBarton is on hold, too.

I had a call today from a potential visitor who wanted to know if the zoo was covered -- not shaded, but covered, as in mall. We told her the biodome got knocked out during a lightning storm and should be back on in two weeks. Other people would call and want to know if it was hot at the zoo. We'd ask, "Are you out of state??!!?"

The drought made me most conscious of hay -- where would we get it and how much would it cost and would it be any good. Because of the shortage, we started getting the goats, sheep and cows used to "Drought Buster." I think it's made up of old newspapers and lawn mower trimmings, but it's roughage, and cheaper than hay: pre-drought prices were $3 to $3.95 per bale, delivered and stacked, and drought prices are $5.95 to $7 per bale, if you can find it.

Marcia Herman, natural areas manager at the Wildflower Research Center:

I still have faith in native plants. I was amazed to see it green up after the rains, even the areas I hadn't watered that looked dead. I know now I was right not to water them, but I don't know how much longer I could've gone if it hadn't rained. But just because we got some rain, I don't think we should become complacent. I hope we don't learn that we never learn.

Marianne Sprinkel, owner of Craftsman Farms, an organic farm on CR 190 in Dripping Springs:

I know I've reflected on the drought a lot. It's forced us to scale down from six to eight acres to 20 beds, and to cease our farm stand sales.

The drought has inspired us to make the most of what we do have. Everything is well taken care of, more so than it would have been without the drought -- drip irrigation, heavy mulch. You literally have to make the most of every plant. For example, I abandoned the Japanese eggplant area. Then after the rains, I started looking at them and noticed a few new flowers, some tiny fruits. So I spent a couple of days working on the bed, trimmed back the old growth.

Now it looks like they might make it. It's like a secret lesson. Because we have so little, I was forced to take a second look at the plants and try to make them produce. Right now, a 20-pound box of eggplant is a 20-pound box of eggplant.

For me, what this kind of hardship does is teach you a lesson to adjust your thinking to adapt to your environment. It's made me very grateful for the years we've had good production.

Curtis Rippy, whose family has run Rippy's Ranch Supply in Dripping Springs and raised cattle in the area for generations:

We got some rain, but not in time for a lot of the ranchers who've already had to liquidate their cattle because feed prices went so high. They're starting to come down a little now, but I've never seen them so high. Back in the Fifties, when we had our last bad drought, it was a different world. Feed was cheap. Ranchers could hang onto their cattle. In the ranching business, you got to learn these things are going to happen.

Quinton Martin, chief water resources planner for the Lower Colorado River Authority:

What we're learning is to be more aware of public information needs. We base our drought management on when the reservoirs were last full, which was June of 1995. So, on January 1 of this year we were 90 percent full, which is no drought. We define our drought if, at the beginning of the year, we're less than two-thirds full. We're about 64 percent full now, but we don't know what's going to happen between now and the end of the year. If we stay below that level, we start reducing our supplies in 1997 for our irrigation water users. In our current drought plan, we don't have any curtailment of our municipal/industrial users.

Although we don't consider this a drought from a water-supply point of view, we do consider it a drought for people who depend upon rainfall or small, isolated water-collection systems. They've been effected substantially because it got so dry. We typically don't have this kind of dry year; it's comparable to what we might get every 20 years. And if you go back in the records, back to the 1850s, we've not ever had two really dry years back to back. We doubt if next year will be as dry as this year's been.

Paula Di Fonso, General Manager for New Braunfels Utilities:

I've learned you have to plan. Once you're into a drought, there's no simple, quick solution to finding alternative water resources. We can't sit back when we have plenty and say everything's okay. It costs money, but we need to make the investment because once the drought is upon you, it's very painful, and you're not going to come out of it very easily. The way I understand it, the documentation on it, this drought is even more extreme in its degree than the drought of the Fifties.

It's been difficult here in New Braunfels, having planned and having paid for alternate water supplies, yet still seeing those around -- especially San Antonio, as large as they are --having looked many times at whether or not they should make plans for the future and didn't do it, just sat there and said, "No, we have plenty." Now we're in a severe drought. Emotions are high. The politics are volatile. And we're having to react rather than plan and move forward. It's sad that you have to go through something like this, so difficult and so painful, to finally make yourself do something.

I hope people will learn we have to adapt to our region, that we have to plan and invest in water supplies that will assure our future. We've had a time of reckoning. I hope if we do get relief from this drought we don't step back again, and say, "It's okay. We've got enough water now. We'll wait till next time."

William Thornton, Mayor of San Antonio, who made headlines this drought season by opposing efforts to limit overpumping of the Edwards Aquifer:

No comment. n When I started writing about the drought, in my typical flippant fashion, I wanted the article to be fun -- gallows humor at the least. I tried to prod witty remarks from the people I talked to, hoping they'd sprinkle their comments with homespun maxims like "It's so dry the fish carry canteens," or "This drought's so bad the trees are bribing the dogs." But oddly enough, no one could find any humor in dying plants, thirsty animals, rotten well water, and economic disaster. I think Todd Votteler, special master for the federal court, appointed by Judge Lucius Bunton III to draft the 1996 Emergency Withdrawal Reduction Plan for the Edwards Aquifer, summed up everyone's feelings when he said, "I wish I could've thought of something funny about the drought, but I couldn't. Nothing."

Maybe a drought's lingering nature enhances this somberness, the impending threat of Depression Era dust bowls and famine and the collapse of the world we know. That certainly takes the yuks out of it for me. Or maybe it's because the lessons of the droughts are never learned. As Votteler put it, "The primary lesson I've learned from the drought is that it takes years to develop alternative water supplies. Unfortunately, water supply issues don't receive much attention until a drought begins. And as soon as the drought ends, water supplies are forgotten again. That's the unfortunate lesson that I've learned about droughts." n

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